Review: ‘Tar Angel’

Catherine Trudeau

An Algerian immigrant to Canada sees his upcoming citizenship threatened by his son's activism in "Tar Angel," an initially intriguing semi-road movie that becomes bogged down in improbability.

An Algerian immigrant to Canada sees his upcoming citizenship threatened by his son’s activism in “Tar Angel,” an initially intriguing semi-road movie that becomes bogged down in improbability. This first solo outing by writer-director Denis Chouinard would have benefited from some of the gritty realism of his debut outing, “Stowaways” (1997), co-directed with Nicolas Wadimoff, instead of the increasing fancifulness that afflicts the pic’s second half. Easily digestible film may grab a few offshore bookings but will leave minimal theatrical tracks. Though the most marketable of the three Canadian entries in Montreal’s competition, pic was a so-so choice from a strong field as the fest’s opener.

Ahmed Kasmi (Zinedine Soualem), who fled Algeria’s civil war three years ago, is so proud of becoming a Canadian that he sings the national anthem while trying on his new suit purchased for the forthcoming ceremony. All that the authorities now need to process his application is the police report from Algiers.

Ahmed’s wife, Naima (Hiam Abbass), is happily pregnant with their third child, and teen daughter Djamila (Kenza Abiabdillah) is enjoying her new freedoms. The only fly in the ointment is their son, Hafid (Rabah Ait Ouyahia), who’s joined a bunch of political activists. When Hafid is caught on security cameras installing a virus in government computers, Ahmed sees his dream of a new life crumble before his eyes, and is further thrown when he finds Hafid’s stash of hash and pics of his g.f., Huguette (Catherine Trudeau), a hippy tattooist.

When Hafid vanishes, saying he’ll be back in 10 days, Ahmed panics and tracks down Huguette, who doesn’t know where he is, either. However, Huguette takes Ahmed to see Roberto (Raymond Cloutier), the activists’ leader, and he points them in the right direction. So, first by car, and then by snow mobile, Ahmed and Huguette set off into Quebec’s north country to track down the errant sibling.

The low-key comedy that underscores the first act focuses into an often appealing odd-couple road movie as the conservative, frightened Muslim and spunky, hard-assed Quebecoise journey through the snowy wastes, sharing motel rooms and avoiding the authorities. But the film’s more serious side never quite rings true in its details and tone — for a start, Hafid’s group seems singularly inept — making an uneasy bed partner with the lighter stuff.

The characters, too, are over-schematic, with dialogue simply verbalizing their attitudes in a self-consciously movie way. What they have to say doesn’t add anything new to the debates (immigration, family, exile) the pic raises. Climax, when they find Hafid, is little more than an exchange of opposing stances.

Both Trudeau and Soualem do the best they can to breathe life into their roles, with the former a spiky-haired bundle of foul-mouthed determination and the latter quietly playing off against her. Quebec hip-hop singer Ouyahia fails to make the anguished Hafid more than one-dimensional.

Tech credits are OK, with wintry Montreal and northern Quebec well captured by ace d.p. Guy Dufaux.

Tar Angel

Canada

Production

An Alliance Atlantis Vivafilm/Odeon Films release of an Alliance Atlantis Vivafilm presentation of a Max Films production. Produced by Roger Frappier, Luc Vandal. Directed, written by Denis Chouinard.

Crew

Camera (color), Guy Dufaux; editor, Richard Comeau; music, Bertrand Chenier; production designer, Mario Hervieux; costume designer, Denis Sperdouklis; sound (Dolby SRD), Gilles Corbeil, Hans Peter Strobl; sound designer, Marcel Pothier; assistant director, Eric Parenteau; casting, Emmanuelle Beaugrand-Champagne, Julie Breton. Reviewed at Montreal Film Festival (competing), Aug. 23, 2001. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Perspective Canada.) Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Zinedine Soualem, Catherine Trudeau, Rabah Ait Ouyahia, Hiam Abbass, Raymond Cloutier, Francois Papineau, Maude Guerin, Marc Beaupre, Kenza Abiabdillah.
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